Munch’s ‘The Scream’ – A Timeless Expression of Expressionism
Beneath a sky aflame with red, orange and yellow, an androgynous figure stands on a bridge wearing a blue coat that seems to flow into a surreal torrent of turquoise and indigo behind him. It’s two elongated hands are held up on either side of it’s hairless and skull-like head. It’s eyes are wide in shock, and it’s mouth shaped into a bloodcurdling scream. Despite vague traces of normality from the boat on the fjord and the two figures in the distance, there is an overall sense of primal horror.
This is, of course, The Scream, the second most famous image in art history after the Mona Lisa.
The Scream (1893) was painted at the end of the 19th century in the midst of a unique transitional period in art history, also known as the ‘fin de siècle’. Although artists success was then generally measured by the technical skill it took to reproduce a realistic image, artists like Munch were beginning to use art to convey emotions instead, using simple shapes and sharp, exaggerated colors. Munch differed from other artists in that he revealed the honest, even ugly, glimpse into his inner turmoil and feelings of anxiety through what he called his “soul painting”, placing more importance on personal meaning than on art’s traditional goal of technical skill or “beauty”. While condemned by art critics and considered too radical in their time, artists like Edvard Munch and even Van Gogh were paving the way for Expressionism and the more progressive modern art movements of the 20th century.
An entry in Edvard Munch’s diary, dated 22 January 1892, recorded the inspiration for The Scream: “I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.”
The Scream is placed in a time when the Norwegian painter was broke, fresh off a failed love affair, and in fear of developing the mental illness that ran in his family. It was said that the bridge depicted in The Scream was a popular spot for jumpers. It was also within earshot of a slaughterhouse and an insane asylum which housed Munch’s schizophrenic sister. While at first the painting appears to carry some autobiographical reference to suggest that the figure may be Munch himself, the androgynous depiction of the figure also allows us to interpret it as more, perhaps the inner turmoil in all of us?
The Scream was a key piece for the Symbolist movement and an important inspiration for the Expressionist movement of the early 20th century. Symbolist artists from all over the world faced questions concerning the nature of subjectivity and its visual depiction. As Munch himself wrote succinctly in a notebook entry on subjective vision in 1889, “It is not the chair which is to be painted but what the human being has felt in relation to it.”
Yet, the most exceptional thing about The Scream is not the impact it had on subsequent art, but in the way it transcended from art history into popular culture. The Scream has been caricatured and satirized so much in the last century that it is now famous in its own respect. Those who may have never heard of Edvard Munch still recognize The Scream, owing to the numerous references that have been made to it in the media in everything from The Simpsons to the iconic ‘Ghostface’ mask from Wes Craven’s slasher movie franchise Scream, which was worn by the killers and inspired by Munch’s painting.
As art historian Jill Lloyd notes, The Scream’s ubiquity is in part a result of the fact that it is an easily understandable visual idea, “as an image, it is pared down to the essence, which means that once you’ve seen it, you don’t forget it”.
Author: Hiba J Ali